San Francisco Opera names Eun Sun Kim as new music director

San Francisco Opera names Eun Sun Kim as new music director
New SF Opera music director Eun Sun Kim. | Photo: Olivier Le Blanc/SF Opera
By Cedric Westphal - Published on December 09, 2019.

The position of music director of the SF Opera has sat open since May 2016, when maestro Nicola Luisotti announced that he'd be leaving his post at the end of the 2017-18 season.

Now, the organization has finally named a successor. As the SF Opera's fourth music director, Eun Sun Kim will be the first woman (and woman of color) to hold this position — and the first Asian woman to be music director of any major North American opera house.

Trained as a pianist, the 39-year-old South Korean switched to composing because she found performing too stressful. After undergoing study to conduct her own work, she discovered a passion for conducting, training under mentors like Daniel Barenboim and Jesús López Cobos.

Kim has since led productions across Europe, including appearances at Teatro Real in Madrid, the English National Opera, the Opéra de Marseille, Opernhaus Zürich, the Royal Danish Opera, the Royal Swedish Opera and the Berlin State Opera.

In the U.S., she made her debut two years ago at the Houston Grand Opera, and has either appeared or is scheduled to appear at the Washington National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Los Angeles Opera.

Eun Sun Kim in rehearsal with the SF Opera orchestra for "Rusalka." | Photo: Cory Weaver, SF Opera

Earlier this year, Kim led the orchestra in "Rusalka," a critically acclaimed series of performances that helped land her the job. As music director designate, she will begin planning future seasons and hosting orchestral auditions immediately, with her five-year term officially starting in August 2021. She will conduct up to four productions during each season, plus other ancillary activities.

Her next performances with the opera will be in fall 2020, when she'll conduct a new production of Beethoven’s "Fidelio" during the opening weekend of the 2020–21 season.

Since its 1923 founding, the San Francisco Opera has had three music directors. Luisotti (2009-18) was preceded by Donald Runnicles (1992-2009) and Sir John Pritchard (1985-89). The opera's first two general directors, Gaetano Merola (1923-53) and Kurt Herbert Adler (1953-81) wore both general and music director hats. 

While Luisotti specialized in Italian opera and Runnicles in German opera, Kim told the Chronicle that she prides herself on being a generalist. She's learned to speak six languages, so she can thoroughly understand every opera she conducts.

"Whatever repertoire I’m conducting at a particular time, that’s what I fall in love with,” she said.